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Identity theft occurs when someone uses your name, Social Security number, credit card number, or other identifying data to commit fraud or other crimes. In this electronic age, it has become an all-too-common danger. Fortunately, there are many preventative measures you can take to substantially reduce the chance of identity theft occurring and steps you can take to minimize damage if you do become a victim. This module covers the basics of identity theft, including:

  • Common Practices of Identity Thieves
  • Preventing Identity Theft
  • How To Recover
  • Federal Laws
  • Helpful Resources


Chapter 1: Common Practices of Identity Thieves

How Identity Thieves Acquire Information
Thieves use a variety of illegal techniques to procure identity information. They may:

  • Steal statements or other mail containing personal information from your mailbox.

  • Divert your mail to another location by filling out a change of address form.

  • Search through the trash or recycling bin for documents containing financial or personal information.

  • Steal your wallet or electronic device.

  • Misrepresent themselves to a company that does business with you or otherwise has information about you (e.g. access your credit report by posing as a landlord).

  • Hack into your computer or the computer of a company that does business with you.

  • Access the information you enter online or send by e-mail.

  • Pose as a legitimate company or government agency and request personal information via phone (“vishing”), email (“phishing”), or text message (“smishing”).

  • Attach a skimmer to an ATM to capture the card number and PIN.

  • Take advantage of a personal relationship with you. (For example, a “friend” may swipe a statement from your dresser when you are occupied.)

What an Identity Thief Can Do
After an identity thief has your personal information, he or she may use it in a variety of illegal ways. Common practices include:

  • Making charges on an existing credit card account. Though some retailers check your identification when you pay with plastic, it is often not done – all the thief needs to do is forge your signature. It is even easier for him or her to use your account when making telephone or online purchases.

  • Opening a new credit card account. Once a thief has your personal information, he or she can open an account in your name, but have the card and bills routed to him or her. The thief makes purchases, but the bill never arrives at your home. (And of course, the thief doesn’t pay it him- or herself). You may not find about the crime until a collector tracks you down, you apply for credit and are denied, or you pull a copy of your credit report and you see the activity.

  • Taking out a loan to buy a car or other expensive items. As with credit cards, you often won't know of the activity until you experience some type of negative credit or collection action.

  • Using an existing checking account. The thief may write fraudulent checks or use your debit card. Having the PIN makes it easy to take cash out of the ATM, but even without it, he or she can still make purchases in a store by choosing the “credit” option and online and over the phone.

  • Obtaining government benefits or using your health insurance. The thief may apply for such things as Social Security benefits or foods stamps with your identity or pretend to be you and provide your insurance information to pay for medical care.

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